As the pandemic continues, organizations have come to accept that the new way of working could very well serve as a blueprint for the long term.
However, the “new” world of work is hardly new. Even before the current crisis, new technologies like automation and artificial intelligence have continued to disrupt jobs because employees lack the skills needed to work with them.
In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as 375 million workers, or 14 percent of the global workforce, would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of changing technologies and shifting priorities.
As such, it’s no surprise that LinkedIn Learning’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report—published in February 2020 just before the pandemic set in—discovered that 51% of L&D professionals planned to launch upskilling programs in 2020 and 43% planned to launch reskilling programs.
Of course, the pandemic has only served to accelerate the need for learning leaders and talent developers to upskill and reskill their workforces.
However, there is a need for brand-new skill sets that employees may not have needed in the past. These skill sets are related to learning empathy and acquiring so-called soft skills that can help not only small teams but also entire organizations better manage disruptions and changes in the way work is carried out.
“To meet this challenge, companies should craft a talent strategy that develops employees’ critical digital and cognitive capabilities, their social and emotional skills, and their adaptability and resilience,” notes a McKinsey Insights article. “Now is the time for companies to double down on their learning budgets and commit to reskilling. Developing this muscle will also strengthen companies for future disruptions.”
Let’s have a look at why empathy training and associated soft skills are on the rise in today’s organizations, and what learning leaders can do to ensure that these skills are not only introduced but mastered.
1. Assisting customers in their time of need
What’s driving the need for empathy training is external: an organization’s customers are undergoing some of the most challenging, if not traumatic, times of their lives.
In the contact center, automation, chatbots, and IVR technologies have been a tremendous asset to financial services companies and other consumer-facing businesses that need to handle customer issues at scale.
However, under the pandemic, these technologies alone cannot truly deliver the empathy needed, as customers seek to refinance their mortgages, inquire about payment plans, or explain that they simply cannot make a payment. Customers often cannot do this with a few taps on their phone; instead, they most likely prefer to speak personally, one-on-one with a customer care representative.
As such, empathy training is in high demand for businesses that must address the unprecedented personal financial situations of their customers.
2. Difficulty in understanding remote coworkers
Employees also need empathy training in order to better understand their fellow coworkers—whether they are undergoing stress or not.
This is more important than ever, because live, in-person interactions are no longer. Body language or facial expressions and that may have signaled feelings might not be available under current circumstances.
Indeed, in a world of Zoom calls—and the ability to turn one’s camera and microphone off— employees may be unaware of their coworkers thoughts, opinions, or attitudes.
Empathy training can help employees acquire a better understanding of digital signals. A greater understanding of people, even electronically, goes a long way in harmonizing the team and increasing productivity and effectiveness.
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3. Empathy training as a stepping stone to leadership training
Some organizations view empathy training not as a standalone, single use-case type of training, but rather as a stepping stone to or even a critical component of leadership development.
“Empathy can improve your negotiation skills,” notes Cheryl Carpenter, a faculty member of The Poynter Institute, a journalism advocacy organization. “It can ease the tension that comes with change. And it can help you navigate conflict.”
Even in an age of robots and machine learning, strong leadership, creative problem solving, and communication skills are always in demand. According to LinkedIn Learning’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report, 57% of L&D professionals are focused on developing leadership and management skills.
4. Diversity, equity, and inclusion training on the rise
Although the focus on diversity may have been heightened by widespread social unrest last year, particularly in the United States, it’s far more than a need for one-off training.
Diversity training was already gaining traction across organizations large and small, especially as compliance with social and governance initiatives becomes a mandate from the executive suite, board of directors, and investors.
L&D teams need to figure out the best way to deliver this effectively and with up-to-date best practices. According to the Learning Guild in its June 2020 Covid Impact study, diversity training in 2021 needs to go beyond what is or is not appropriate outward conduct in the workplace and seek to address issues such as unconscious bias as well.
The good news is that diversity training includes empathy training, so there is the reinforcement of core principles.
5. Employees are more stressed out than ever before
Finally, stress is driving the need for empathy training. According to mental health provider Ginger and as reported in Human Resources Executive magazine, nearly seven in 10 workers claim the coronavirus pandemic is the most stressful time of their professional career. This is even more than major events like 9/11 and the 2008 Great Recession.
Burnout is real, and while it’s been a much discussed topic for many years, the pandemic has accelerated the need for both employers and employees to do something about mastering their minds and taking control of their time.
Course megasite Udemy found that the #1 trend in its 2021 Workplace Learning Trends Report was that self-mastery is a valued skill. Udemy witnessed a 3,967% increase in the demand for anxiety management courses on its platform and a 1,015% increase in that for stress management.
In sum, empathy training and associated training on soft, interpersonal skills are clearly on the rise. Some forward- thinking organizations have been offering such training to their employees for many years; others have not, and may have found themselves scrambling to develop or provide training.
What may have once been seen as a “nice to have” is now clearly a “need to have,” as organizations have begun to get a taste of the new normal. Those with an empathic, mindful, and resilient workforce will thrive.
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